By Holger Stark
Syria's Far-Filastin prison is like an iceberg. The most treacherous part lies hidden beneath the surface.
Its visible part is a white, two-story building in the drab style of socialist prefab construction, about as plain-looking as the former Berlin headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi. This unassuming-looking building in the Massa section of the Syrian capital, a five-minute drive from downtown Damascus, is the Syrian military intelligence agency's nerve center.
Shortly before 5 p.m., dozens of military intelligence employees ending their day shifts pass through the facility's cast iron, five-meter gate. They include guards like Ahmed, who was suspended five years ago for his brutal interrogation tactics that often led to prisoners' deaths, but who is nonetheless back on the job. Two intelligence officers sit in a battered, white Peugeot parked at the corner, watching and waiting. The sun is about to dip the neighborhood in the mild glow of early evening, and the muezzin is about to call out the end of the day's fast. But the scene is lost on the prisoners in their dark, underground cells, where they can only hear the muezzin.
The dungeons of Far-Filastin, which means "Palestinian Division" in Arabic, were once reserved for Palestinian fedayeen fighters. Nowadays the underground cells house followers, real or suspected, of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Mohammed Haydar Zammar, 44, is one of the latter.
Zammar's cell, cell 13, is reached by taking a left turn at the end of a long corridor. It's the third door after the bathroom. He's been held here for almost four years.
At least one thing is certain: he's alive. This was confirmed when the Red Cross received a call from Walid al-Muallim, Syria's deputy foreign minister. The message -- that the prisoner would be allowed to send and receive mail -- was a small miracle by Syrian standards. The Red Cross then forwarded a short note from Zammar's wife, who lives in Hamburg, to Zammar, and the prisoner was permitted to write a few sentences in response. Zammar's letter, including the salutation (Dear wife, dear children), amounts to all of 43 words on 7 lines. In handwriting as clumsy and crooked as that of a second-grader (after all, Zammar hasn't written anything in a long time), he writes: "I am healthy and I ask you to pray for me and forgive me. Your Haydar. Al-Salam alaikum."
The letter was the first official sign of life from Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a German citizen, since he was abducted weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was dated June 8, 2005 and marked Palestine Division, Damascus.
The news is good and bad. Zammar is alive. That's the good news. But whether his family will even see him again is as uncertain as ever. The correspondence shines light on a case that epitomizes the post-9/11 world, one in which it's difficult to tell who is and who isn't a villain -- and even if someone is, just how much of a villain he is. The Zammar case typifies the "war on terror," in which the US government seems to believe that almost any means are justified, even torture in a country like Syria, a country that, ironically, the Americans have branded a "rogue state." The case is also symbolic, raising, as it does, the issue of just how far a state governed by the rule of law can go, especially when the division between right and wrong is so murky.
Zammar's abduction also raises questions about the role of the German government. It has no exact knowledge -- officially, that is -- about the fate of its citizen, but it also wanted its share of the action when it came time for Zammar to confess, and so it sent a delegation of German officials to Damascus. For the Germans, the information this prisoner could potentially provide, in the days following 9/11, seemed far too important to ignore.
At the time, investigators believed that Zammar was a key figure who could help clear up the worst crime in the modern history of terrorism. Zammar, nicknamed "Fratello Mohammed" in Italy and "Bruder Haydar" (Brother Haydar) in Germany, was a known entity in Islamist circles. He was an enormous man, weighing in at 145 kg (320 lbs.), with arms the size of small tree trunks. His appearance alone -- he was thickly bearded and wore a flowing blue caftan and a Palestinian kaffiyeh -- made him a dead ringer for a dedicated servant of Allah.
When confronted with the bin Laden pamphlet, Zammar told authorities it was "a declaration of war on the USA. I photocopied it to distribute to Muslims." His friends say that Brother Haydar had always been a bit naïve, but the reality is that he was anything but an overgrown child.
More than anything else he was unreasonable. When he was taken to a court in Hamburg six days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Zammar told the judge that, as a Muslim, he was only bound by the word of God. "The law that obligates me to testify here," he said, "is not Islamic law. And that's why I don't feel bound by that law." A short time later, the Federal Public Prosecutor launched an investigation against Zammar -- under file number 2 BJs 81/01-5 -- on the suspicion that he had supported a terrorist organization -- the group of Sept. 11 pilots. The investigation is still pending.
Zammar moved to Hamburg from Aleppo, Syria in 1971, but in a sense he never really arrived in Germany. After dropping out of high school, he was trained as an automobile mechanic at Daimler, but soon became unemployed. He renounced his Syrian citizenship on March 17, 1982 and became a German citizen. Despite living from welfare and child assistance payments totaling about 1,400 a month, he felt justified in claiming that Muslims had "always been treated poorly" in Germany.
After living in Germany for 30 years, Zammar decided to leave the land of the infidel and move to a Muslim country, Morocco or perhaps Mauritania. He applied for a new passport in Hamburg and booked a flight to Casablanca via Amsterdam. That was on Oct. 27, 2001.
Zammar's wife and six children never saw him again.
Once in Casablanca, Zammar obtained a divorce from a young Moroccan woman he had taken as a second wife a year earlier, during Ramadan. He then visited the parents of Mounir al-Motassadeq, the Islamist a Hamburg court later convicted of membership of al-Qaida and sentenced to seven years in prison. Zammar reassured Motassadeq's family that everything would turn out well for their son, that German authorities didn't have much of a case against him.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center
On the morning of his return flight to Hamburg, Moroccan intelligence agents took Zammar into custody and, together with American agents, interrogated him for the next two weeks. The CIA then put him on a plane to Damascus. It was shortly before Christmas 2001. Zammar had become one of the first victims of a secret intelligence campaign that the US government has been running since Sept. 11, a campaign that has deeply divided public opinion in the United States.
The orders to set up the program called "Extraordinary Renditions" came directly from US President George W. Bush. The program focuses on hunting down suspected bin Laden supporters like Zammar worldwide. The hunt usually ends in the suspect being taken to any of a number of US special detention facilities at the US airbases in Bagram, Afghanistan and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, in Guantanamo Bay and, presumably, in Eastern Europe -- a chain of secret prisons scattered around the world, where terrorism suspects like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Ramzi Binalshibh are held and interrogated.
"We do not torture"
Regimes like Syria's play a central role in this campaign. They enable the beleaguered US government to practice the kind of double standards that Bush demonstrated yet again two weeks ago when he said, categorically, "we do not torture." But the US government does allow others to torture on its behalf, prisoners like Zammar, for example, so that the administration in Washington doesn't have to get its hands dirty. Instead, it's a role the Syrians seem more than happy to assume. Indeed, Syria is to the campaign against al-Qaida what Saudi Arabia is to the oil industry: a never-ending well. It brings information about the inner workings of the bin Laden network to the surface. But this only raises the question of who is actually given access to this resource in fighting terrorism.
Many of the most salient details come from the radical Muslim Brotherhood, which has been brutally suppressed by the Syrian government for more than 20 years and has served as a fertile recruiting ground for terrorist organizations supporting bin Laden's cause. News about al-Qaida seeps from the finely woven net a dozen Syrian intelligence agencies have thrown over the Islamic opposition -- a sort of byproduct of the Syrian government's ongoing efforts to remain in power. On at least three occasions, Damascus has furnished information that prevented terrorist attacks against US interests, including planned strikes against Navy bases in the Middle East.
This practice raises what one high-ranking official in the German government calls "the $64,000 question." Which is more important, concern about a regime that suppresses and tortures its opposition or the ability to gather information that can help officials deal with al-Qaida more effectively?
The German Federal Chancellery clearly answered this question in July 2002, when it met with a high-ranking delegation from Damascus in Berlin.
The man leading the delegation was a Syrian general who is currently in the global limelight: Assif Shaukat, 55. UN special investigator Detlev Mehlis believes that Shaukat may have been one of the key figures behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. But in the summer of 2002, Shaukat was in Berlin as the Germans' negotiating partner and as a trusted associate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose sister is Shaukat's wife.
Shaukat, a tall man with flashing eyes, a thick mustache and a prominent forehead, has a reputation for being as dangerous as he is charismatic. At the German Federal Chancellery in Berlin, he met with a select group of high-ranking officials, including the heads of the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) and the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA). The purpose of the meeting was to cement a political deal, and the meeting itself quickly turned into the kind of give-and-take one might otherwise see at an oriental bazaar in the old section of Damascus.
Shaukat brought two demands to the negotiating table. First, he wanted the Germans to call off Federal Public Prosecutor Kay Nehm, who was investigating two Syrians, a non-accredited cultural attaché at the Syrian embassy and a Syrian student living in the German city of Mainz. Nehm had indicted the two men, who had blown the whistle on a Syrian exile with German citizenship who had been arrested by Syrian agents during a visit to Syria, and charged them with espionage and contributing to unlawful detention.
Shaukat's second demand related to a case implicating the family of the Syrian president. German prosecutors have accused President Assad's uncle, Faisal Sammak, of aiding and abetting a 1983 attack on the Maison de France in Berlin, where a young man was killed. Sammak, then Syria's ambassador to East Germany, had apparently allowed the attackers to store their explosives at the diplomatic residence. Sammak is still being sought today under an international arrest warrant.
The Germans also had two demands. First, they wanted the Syrians to disband their network of agents in Germany. And they wanted access to Zammar.
For their part, the Syrians promised to tone down their espionage activities, and even recalled an undercover agent from the embassy, just as Berlin had demanded. They also offered access to Zammar, but also threatened to sever all diplomatic relations if this accommodating offer led to a public discussion of the prisoner's story.
A German delegation made its way to Damascus on Nov. 20, 2002. It included two officials from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Cologne, two from the BND in the Bavarian town of Pullach and two from the BKA near Bonn. The six men, who landed at Damascus International Airport on a mild autumn morning, had known or been aware of Zammar for a long time.
The officials from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution have known him since 1997, when they tried to convince him to work for them as an informer in Hamburg. They called it "Operation Tenderness," an allusion to Zammar's stature. A foreign intelligence service had drawn their attention to Zammar, a known bin Laden supporter. The two German agents met with him twice, but Zammar laughed at them, saying that he had no intention of serving the West, that he would only serve Allah and jihad. But then, to be on the safe side, he added that this only applied to the world out there -- to Bosnia or Afghanistan -- not to Germany.
Then the men wiretapped Zammar's phone and watched him, only to lose his trail when he disconnected his telephone service in late 1997. They eventually picked it up again and in 1999 passed on the information to the CIA, which had its own undercover agent in Hamburg. The CIA was concerned that Hamburg could be developing into a launching pad for volunteers being sent to Afghanistan to support bin Laden in his cause. As a result of "Operation Tenderness," Zammar had made it onto the Americans' internal most-wanted list.
The Germans eventually concluded that the heavyset Muslim was a lightweight when it came to terrorism and discontinued their operation in early 2000. It was a tragic mistake. One day after the Sept. 11 attacks, it was revealed that German intelligence officials had recordings of telephone conversations between Zammar and the group surrounding Mohammed Atta in their files, recordings that could have led them to the Atta terrorist cell. But they wouldn't have known what to make of the conversations before the attacks, and the German agents have had a score to settle ever since.
The men from the BKA, knew of Zammar because, only hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, their agency, together with the FBI, had more than 600 men on the ground looking for people with possible ties to the Sept. 11 pilots. Brother Haydar was one of the suspects.
Finally, Zammar had been on officials' radar screen because their agency had received wiretapped recordings of Zammar's conversations from foreign intelligence agencies in Italy and Afghanistan.
But was the prisoner they were finally facing in Syria truly that heavyset fanatic their government had once viewed and treated with such contempt? Zammar had lost weight, perhaps as much as 50 kilograms (110 lbs.), and looked almost emaciated. A day before the Germans' visit, the Syrians had taken Zammar from his cell, given him a haircut and new clothes, and were treating him with unexpected courtesy -- all in an effort to disguise the fact that the prisoner had been interrogated daily in the preceding weeks. Judging by the screams other prisoners were able to hear in their cells, the interrogations had been anything but tender.
When the Germans began their interrogation, Zammar seemed well prepared to answer their questions about Atta, Sept. 11 and Osama bin Laden.
Zammar took the officials on a journey back in time into the 1990s, to a Germany that had its hands full dealing with right-wing extremists and German reunification, a Germany in which Islamic fundamentalism was allowed to flourish without hindrance. He talked about the first time he went to Afghanistan, in 1991 -- traveling to Peshawar and Khost via Karachi, Pakistan -- and about how he taught Algerians to use explosives in camps he called "Farm 2" and "Farm 4." Zammar stayed in the Hindukush region until the winter of 1991, despite knee and back problems, which were only exasperated by driving across rough terrain in SUVs. After spending an icy night in a guesthouse near Peshawar, Zammar decided to return to Hamburg.
At the time, Afghan exiles were openly selling propaganda videos in Hamburg. One was called "Kabul Seeks Liberators," and seeing it convinced Zammar to return to Afghanistan to fight. Once there, he learned how to use rocket-propelled grenades, later also learning the intricacies of the poison business from a heavyset specialist named Abu Chabab. Chabab's training center was on the second floor of a building guarded around the clock by Arab Afghans. This time Zammar stayed in Afghanistan for two months and, in the summer of 1995, went to Zenica in Bosnia to help the Bosnian Muslims fight the Serbs.
It was Zammar's way of supporting holy war. It was almost exactly one year before the Sept. 11 attacks. It also got him a face-to-face meeting with Osama bin Laden in a camp near Kandahar airport, where bin Laden was staying and where he was the guest of honor at a Syrian wedding. It was an uplifting encounter for Zammar, almost the way a Catholic would feel if given an audience with the pope.
In October 2000, al-Qaida blew a large hole in the USS Cole, an American destroyer which was docked in the harbor at Aden, killing 17 GIs. Zammar was living in a camp near Kandahar at the time. He told the German officials in Damascus that news of the Cole attack was cause for celebration among his fellow mujahedeen. But it also meant that no one in the camp slept that night, for fear of an American reprisal attack. That autumn, it seemed to Islamists that America, the Great Satan, could indeed be brought to its knees.
Interrogation details remain sealed
Then the German investigators asked Zammar their most important question: What do you know about preparations for the Sept. 11 attacks? Zammar's response sheds some light on what happened in Hamburg before the attacks, but it is also exculpatory, despite the fact that Zammar repeatedly incriminated himself during the interrogation leading up to this critical question. The German officials now believe that Zammar, despite his role in paving the way for the Sept. 11 attacks, was not directly involved. He told the Germans that he helped Binalshibh, Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi und Ziad Jarrah get to Afghanistan. He said that at first he only knew Atta, a young, hard-faced Egyptian, who he had met in 1996 at Hamburg's Al-Quds mosque. Atta then introduced him to Binalshibh. But according to Zammar, it was Shehhi, who he didn't meet until 1998 and who was "not as determined" as Atta, with whom he had had the most contact.
Zammar constantly raved about Afghanistan, about his brothers in jihad and the training camps where, as he would have it, life was like something out of a classic Western. Zammar told the German investigators that it was Shehhi who, in the fall 1999, first began talking about going to the Hindukush.
But after that the group of later terrorists apparently lost faith in Zammar and stopped talking to him about their plans. When he met Moroccan Zakariya Essabar, who is still at large today, in a camp known as Kargar in Afghanistan in early 2000, Essabar spoke in only the broadest terms about the basic training he had just completed. But, at least according to Zammar, he said nothing about the monstrous plot the Sept. 11 terrorists must have already hatched by then. Zammar returned to Germany, but probably without knowing anything about the details of his friends' meticulously crafted plan.
Eight days before the attacks in the United States, there was a farewell of sorts at Hamburg Airport. Said Bahaji was leaving Germany, and Zammar and a few friends accompanied him to the gate. According to Zammar, the group included Motassadeq and Abdelghani Mzoudi. Investigators would later learn that Bahaji flew to Pakistan that day. He was apparently partly responsible for the logistics of the attacks, and he knew that it was time to get out of Germany. By chance Zammar encountered another Islamist from Hamburg's Al-Quds mosque at the airport, a Tunisian named Fatih, who was also flying to Afghanistan. If Zammar is to be believed, it must have been a friendly farewell among mujahedeen, future terrorists who planned to see each other again, in this world or the next, Inshallah -- God willing.
The German officials had brought along a folder of photographs of German mujahedeen, and they showed the pictures to Zammar, almost as if the prisoner were some sort of an official expert. One photo showed a man wearing a sand-colored woolen cap and carrying a Kalashnikov, standing in a barren, hilly landscape, supposedly near Kabul.
They asked Zammar who the man was.
Without hesitating, Zammar said that it must be Mamoun Darkazanli, a German-Syrian businessman from Hamburg who investigators have long suspected of supporting the bin Laden network and who is under investigation in several countries. "I didn't know," said an astonished Zammar, "that Darkazanli was also in Afghanistan!" But he did recognize the Kalashnikov. It was the same model with which he himself had been trained. To this day Darkazanli denies ever having been in Afghanistan.
The prisoner also revealed a little secret: He said that he was the one who sent the "Bremen Taliban," Murat Kurnaz, to Afghanistan after Sept. 11. Zammar and Kurnaz had first met at a party in Bremen. Zammar later met with Kurnaz and a friend at the Nur mosque in Hamburg, where Zammar lectured the two young Turks from Bremen about jihad and recommended that they contact the Taliban's official office. Kurnaz, who followed Zammar's advice, has been held by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay since 2002.
The German investigators spent three days questioning Zammar in Damascus. When their work was done, Shaukat invited his German guests to dinner, as a sign of German-Syrian unity. The details of Zammar's interrogation remain sealed to this day. They have not been used in any investigative proceedings against Islamists, despite the fact that the BKA is the agency in charge of the investigations. The six officials and their agencies know full well that no court operating under the rule of law would ever accept an interrogation conducted in a Damascus prison notorious for its torture practices.
Far-Filastin is truly a hotbed of horror. It's said that it is much easier to die there than to survive. According to former inmates, the cells there are hardly bigger than closets -- about 1.85 meters (6 feet) long, 85 centimeters (2.8 feet) wide and barely 2 meters (6.5 feet) tall. The prisoners call them "graves." They sleep on sheets on the bare floor and use a plastic bottle as a toilet during the day. Water condenses on the concrete walls in the summer, and it's sometimes so cold in the winter that cockroaches freeze to death on the stone floors. Rats, some as big as cats, roam the corridors, squeezing themselves under cell doors in search of food. The prisoners get three meals a day, yoghurt and tea in the morning, for example, bulgur wheat for lunch and lentil soup in the evening. The food is usually so spoiled that Zammar, like most prisoners at Far-Filastin, soon suffered from permanent diarrhea, as Abdullah al-Malki recalls.
The Syrians have held Malki, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was arrested in Damascus with the full knowledge of Canadian authorities, for almost a year and a half in Far-Filastin. Malki is held in cell 3, diagonally across the corridor from Zammar.
Malki says that one night, in the winter of 2003, guards arrived with wrapped electric cables to punish a group of inmates who had been communicating by calling out to each other from cell door to cell door. Zammar was one of those rebellious inmates. The guards beat him, but this time Zammar defended himself. "God gave me a tongue, and I will use it," he yelled, his voice echoing so loudly through the catacombs that every prisoner could hear what he had to say. "I'm not just a piece of wood that you can throw into the grave!" he raved.
According to the human rights organization Amnesty International, torture is part of daily life at Far-Filastin. Prisoners who have been released have reported practices ranging from cable beatings on the soles of naked feet to electroshocks. Amnesty International has documented 38 different torture methods at Far-Filastin. An especially feared method involves forcing a prisoner into a car tire. The tire is suspended from the ceiling and the prisoner is then abused with sticks. The guards call the tool a "dulab." Malki says he has also experienced this form of torture.
Once, when Malki and Zammar were being taken to interrogations at the same time, Malki's interrogator pointed to Zammar, who was wearing a brown suit, and bragged: "That guy wouldn't talk, so we really taught him a lesson."
Critical questions for German officials
Should a criminal prosecution agency like the BKA, which is bound to uphold German law, be allowed to conduct an interrogation in Damascus when the prisoner is denied any support whatsoever by the German embassy? Doesn't the state have an obligation to provide assistance to a German citizen like Zammar, even if this citizen is an Islamic extremist?
The state believes that it sufficiently met its obligation to assist Zammar by filing his case under file number RK 531 E and classifying it as a consular case. The German embassy in Damascus, an unadorned, three-story building in the city's affluent Malki neighborhood that once housed the East German embassy, has tried using diplomatic methods to deal with the case, but it's a case that has nothing to do with diplomacy.
The German ambassador has given the Syrians eight verbal and written reminders since June 2002. Most recently, on May 25, 2005, he asked the Syrians to "specify the reasons for [Zammar's] arrest" and to allow him to meet with an attorney. The Syrians haven't responded to any of the messages. For them, the case was closed following their negotiations with the Federal Chancellery. To this day, German diplomats in Damascus don't even know that a German delegation met with Zammar.
The Syrians have also ignored a request for legal assistance from the German Justice Ministry, which was drafted by Federal Public Prosecutor Kay Nehm. According to the request, a superior court in Hamburg wanted an answer to the following question: Did Zammar support Mohammed Atta and his fellow Sept. 11 terrorists? No one, it seemed, thought of inquiring with the Federal Chancellery or the Interior Ministry, both agencies that knew everything there was to know about Zammar. "Zammar was forbidden fruit for the authorities," says Hamburg attorney Gül Pinar, "and the federal government couldn't resist tasting that fruit."
Pinar has become something of a hero in the Islamist community ever since she managed to get Moroccan suspected terrorist Abdelghani Mzoudi acquitted. She now represents Zammar's family. In Mzoudi's case, Pinar discovered how difficult it is for a court in a constitutional state to hand down a conviction when the evidence is so thin. But in Zammar's case she is discovering what happens when countries cross a red line.
The attorney wrote to Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer asking for his assistance for Zammar, the forgotten prisoner. A senior diplomatic official wrote back to inform Pinar that, unfortunately, the Foreign Ministry had "no new information on the current situation of Mr. Zammar." Pinar is now considering filing criminal charges against the German government and its officials.
The officials from the BKA, the BND and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution had actually planned to return to Syria; it was part of their arrangement with the Syrians when they left Damascus in late November 2002. Although a second visit was already in the works, it never materialized because the Syrians didn't deliver on their end of the deal. Indeed, far from cutting back on their spy network, their espionage program is considered one of the world's most aggressive.
"The project was an attempt," says a German government official, "but we now know that it was a mistake."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© DER SPIEGEL 47/2005
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